Beyond Winning and Losing

Photo courtesy of Jim Woodward Photo courtesy of Jim Woodward
Why do we play chess? When I was younger, it was clear: to win. I wanted to win my section. I wanted to defeat titled players. I wanted to qualify for invitationals. I wanted my rating to skyrocket to the moon. As my grandfather used to say when the family would play an innocuous game of Yahtzee, “Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing.” I had plenty of tournaments where I was ecstatic because of my performance. But as all chess players know---good, bad, great, and terrible results are all par for the course. During tournaments with mediocre to poor results, I would spend the weekend haunted by some move I should’ve played, some gap in my preparation, or even a pre-game superstition (come on, we all have them...). Looking back, I think I really missed the point. When I see a student feeling down about a tough tournament, I assure them that all that matters is that they’ve learned something and that they enjoyed playing. I know from my own experiences that a low result is no reason to be discouraged, especially when you’re a young and up-and-coming player. In a few months, they’ll have some vast gain in understanding and jump 300 rating points seemingly effortlessly. Despite assuring students of this, I haven't always been very good at following my own advice and often allow my tournament experiences to be defined by the numbers on the crosstable. This tournament (the Western Class Open), I set out with a different approach. Entering the tournament ranked just a few places above last in the Masters section, I wanted to start the event with reasonable goals---goals based on the chess aspect and the actual quality of my games. Before the 1st round, I wrote down a short list of goals aimed at enjoying my games and using the tournament as a tool for improvement.
Pre-Tournament Goals
  1. Shake off the rust from my recent hiatus (I hadn’t played in a tournament setting for about 6 months).
  2. Play energetic chess, create games full of life and active pieces.
  3. Practice better time management.
  4. Sacrifice something--- As in, if I saw an interesting idea, even if it required a material deficit, I'd try it out.
Let’s see how I did.

1. Shake off the rust from my recent hiatus.

“Chess is two parts: knowledge and playing tendencies. It is impossible to improve one without the other, and playing habits can only truly be worked on within the confines and pressures of a tournament.” -NM Pete Karagianis, “The Struggle”, Chess Life  March 2016 Issue
This goal is like taking a class Pass/Fail. Just by entering the tournament and playing each round, I’ve gotten some practice and remembered what it’s like to be there: opponent sitting across from me, clock ticking down, the stoic feel of the tournament hall looming over every move. Chess in theory is about clarity: You can map out every relevant variation of an opening. You can calculate through every line of a complex tactic. You can carefully examine the subtle technique required to win a theoretical ending. Chess in practice is about fight. At some point, the game goes into uncharted territory. It’s you versus your opponent, navigating through a sea of ideas, variations, complications. Everything that seemed so crystal clear when you were studying at home with Stockfish beside you, offering suggestions and evaluations… is up in the air. I reached the following position after an inaccurate piece sacrifice. My position still has some compensation because Black's pawn structure is fragmented, and his bishop is blocked while my bishop slices across the board. However, with each exchange of pieces, my chances lessen.
[pgn][White "West, Vanessa"]
[Black "Fields, Noah"]
[Result "*"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "5rk1/p2b3p/2p1p1p1/2pn4/8/1P1PqR2/PBP3PP/3Q3K w - - 0 23"]
[PlyCount "4"]{With Black’s last move (22…Rf8), he’s hoping for an exchange of both
rooks and queens with} 23. Rxe3 Nxe3 24. Qe2 Rf1+ {Can I save the game?} * [/pgn]

White to move. 

Show Solution

[White "West, Vanessa"]
[Black "Fields, Noah"]
[Result "*"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "5rk1/p2b3p/2p1p1p1/2pn4/8/1P1PqR2/PBP3PP/3Q3K w - - 0 23"]
[PlyCount "13"]23. Rxe3 Nxe3 24. Qe2 Rf1+ 25. Qxf1 Nxf1 26. Bc1 $1 {Trapping the knight and
winning the piece back. The resulting endgame is equal. After} Kf7 27. Kg1
Nxh2 28. Kxh2 Kf6 29. Be3 {White wins the pawn back without any trouble.} * [/pgn]

2. Play energetic chess, create games full of life and active pieces.

While my accuracy was questionable at times, I was fairly content with the activity of my pieces throughout the games.
[White "West, Vanessa"]
[Black "Fields, Noah"]
[Result "*"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r1b2rk1/p1qp2pp/2p1pb2/2pnN3/4N3/1P1P4/PBP2PPP/R2Q1RK1 w - - 0 13"]
[PlyCount "7"]{In this position, I played} 13. f4 {adding central support to my knight and
involving the rooks in the kingside play. My piece activity in the
position is undeniable. Even though the move sacrifices material in 3
different ways, because of White's resulting pressure, Stockfish doesn't
recommend any of them for Black:} Ne3 ({Accepting the pawn sacrifice with}
13... Nxf4 {loses:} 14. Rxf4 Bxe5 15. Rxf8+ Kxf8 16. Qf3+ Ke7 17. Rf1) 14. Qh5
Nxf1 (14... Nxc2 15. Ng5 $40) 15. Nxf6+ Rxf6 (15... gxf6 $2 16. Ng4 $18) 16.
Nc4 {with compensation.} *[/pgn]

3. Practice better time management.

"When I learned to play chess it really was thought that there’s a best move in every position and you can find it, but now with the appearance and spread of computers it’s become clear to everyone that in many positions there’s a certain number of moves that are equally strong. It’s very difficult to find the golden mean between getting into time trouble and just quickly “bashing out” moves. Sometimes players move quickly – bang-bang-bang, and then it turns out there’s a lot of time left, but it’s time to resign." -GM Alexander Grischuk
This is the area where I need the most improvement. Looking over the amount of time I had left after each move on my scoresheets, there was only one game where I made it past the 30th move with more than 1 minute left on my clock for the remaining 10 moves until time control. In one of my games, having no time left to properly assess the endgame cost me. It’s a double-edged sword though. I don’t want to make weaker moves in my quest to reserve time for later. How does one strike a balance? In his article, “Targets, Time Pressure, and Reaching Expert”, IM Jeremy Silman recommends these strategies for improving time management:
  • Pick up as many opening, middlegame, endgame, and tactical patterns as possible. Doing this will enable you to read a position quickly and save huge amounts of time on your clock.
  • Be practical. You can’t calculate everything. You most likely don’t have all those patterns in your memory bank. So, master basic tactics (which is easy to do), study basic strategic ideas, make the moves you think the position needs as quickly as possible, and let the fates do the rest.

4. Sacrifice something.

"You must take your opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one." -Mikhail Tal
I went overboard on this one, and ended up sacrificing material at least once every game. Trial and error is useful, though---to obtain a better feel for the difference between a fascinating sacrifice full of ideas and compensation vs. an unsound sacrifice. Here's my most unsound sacrifice from the tournament:
Unsound Sacrifice
[White "West, Vanessa"]
[Black "Tovmasyan, Hamlet"]
[Result "*"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r1b2rk1/pp1nbppp/1q2p3/3pP3/Q7/3B1N2/PP1B1PPP/R4RK1 w - - 0 14"]
[PlyCount "4"]
[SourceDate "2016.03.16"]

{In this position, I played} 14. Ba5 $2 {, believing that my better developed
pieces would provide compensation and that the pawn on b2 would turn out to be
poisoned because Black's queen on the verge of being trapped (it's only escape
is on a3). After} Qxb2 {I realized that my pieces are too uncoordinated and
loose for the sacrifice to be sound. For example, if} 15. Bc7 ({Attempts to
trap the queen fail:} 15. Nd4 Nxe5 16. a3 Nxd3 17. Rfb1 Qxf2+) (15.
Rfc1 Nxe5 16. Bc3 Nxf3+ 17. gxf3 Qa3) (15. Rab1 Qa3) 15... Qc3 {creates a double attack on my bishops.}*[/pgn]
Fascinating Sacrifice
On the other hand, in the ongoing Candidates tournament, Levon Aronian showed a lot of creativity when he sacrificed not one, not two, but three pawns against Fabiano Caruana.
“You see? I mated you, my friend!” Aronian said jovially to Caruana during their post-game analysis. Photo courtesy of World Chess
[White "Levon Aronian"]
[Black "Fabiano Caruana"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[ECO "A77"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "r2qr1k1/1p1n1pbp/p2p2p1/2pP4/2P1PP2/2N4P/PBQ3P1/4RRK1 w - - 0 20"]
[PlyCount "21"]
[EventDate "2016.??.??"]

{At this point, Aronian played} 20. e5 $5 {Pawn number one.} dxe5 21. f5 {
creating pressure on Caruanas's kingside and securing the e4 square as an
outpost for his knight.} b5 22. Ne4 Nb6 23. Bc1 {Two pawns.} ({Initially,
Aronian was planning} 23. f6 Bf8 24. h4 Nxc4 25. h5 Qxd5 26. hxg6 hxg6 {and
went on to win the post-game analysis against Caruana during the press
conference:} 27. Qb3 $1 Qd7 28. Qg3 Nxb2 29. Qh2 Qg4 30. Re3 $1) 23... Nxc4 24. d6 {Three!} gxf5 25. Rxf5 Nxd6 26. Bg5
Qa5 27. Bd2 {Stockfish evaluates this position as 0.5 in Black's favor.
However, for Aronian to have 2.5 points worth of compensation despite
Caruana's three pawn advantage means the position is very difficult for Black
to play. Even a player as strong as Caruana didn't want to test Aronian's
attack and opted for a three-time repetition.} Qd8 28. Bg5 Qa5 29. Bd2 Qd8 30.
Bg5 1/2-1/2[/pgn]
What I’ve Learned

"If you aren't 2600 FIDE, you should be expecting to make serious mistakes all of the time, and your best chance to get better is to actually experience these mistakes, internalize them, think about and obsess over fixing them in future tournaments."

-IM Greg Shahade, "The Second Step to a Comeback", Chess Life Online 2011

1. Study endgames leading up to a tournament.

Studying endgames is a given, but I realized that endgame study is useful, not just in general, but as short-term preparation leading up to an event. Why? If you’re like me and get into time pressure, you’re most likely going to reach the endgame with very little time to think. Even with more practical time management, long games can lead to time scramble endings. Having endgame ideas, principles, and theoretical positions fresh on your mind helps a lot when you have 2 minutes left to make all of your decisions. After finishing one of my games, I witnessed this theoretical endgame with Black to move between WIM Annie Wang and Expert Rickie Simms. 

[Event "?"]
[Site "?"]
[Date "????.??.??"]
[Round "?"]
[White "?"]
[Black "?"]
[Result "*"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "1R6/8/4r3/8/8/p4K2/8/k7 b - - 0 1"]
[PlyCount "3"]

{I was excited to see this position in action at a tournament because, as
fascinating endgames are, I rarely get to see theoretical ones in tournament
play. Wang played} 1... a2 {setting up Black's only attempt to win. And, to my
dismay, White immediately played} 2. Rb7 $4 {The truth is, White is lost here
with best play, but White can very much test Black’s knowledge---thirteen precise moves worth of knowledge. Watching Simms‘s casual
posture and how quickly he moved, it was clear that he mistakenly believed the
game to be easily drawn. After Wang’s reply (she looked visibly delighted
that he missed the key move)} Re1 {, he then started a long think, but it was
too late to even make the game a fight.} *

What should white do?

White to move. Find the best defense.

Show Solution
The key to playing for a draw in a worse position is to look for all of your opponent’s attempts to win. Then, make each attempt as difficult as possible. Here, Black only has one winning attempt: ...Re1, ...Rb1, letting the king out of its cage and preparing the a-pawn’s promotion. How can white make this idea more difficult to achieve?
Show Solution
[White "Rickie Simms"]
[Black "Annie Wang"]
[Result "*"]
[SetUp "1"]
[FEN "1R6/8/4r3/8/8/5K2/p7/k7 w - - 0 2"]
[PlyCount "24"]2. Kf2 $1 {The black rook will now have to take a longer route to b1, giving
white’s king more time to join the fight.} Rh6 3. Ke3 Rh1 4. Kd3 {This
square instead of d2 is crucial.} Rb1 5. Ra8 Kb2 {Here comes the king.} 6. Rb8+
Kc1 $1 {The king has nowhere else to go.} ({If} 6... Ka3 7. Ra8+ Kb3 {
Black’s king has to continue defending the a2-pawn.} 8. Rb8+ {and Black
can’t make progress. This is why white’s king belongs on d3, blocking
black’s king from the c4 square.}) 7. Rc8+ Kd1 8. Rh8 Rb3+ ({Of course,} 8...
a1=Q 9. Rh1#) 9. Kc4 Rc3+ {A very important move.} (9... Ra3 $2 {fumbles the
win:} 10. Rh1+ Kd2 11. Rh2+ {is a draw: Black’s king cannot escape check or
stay in the vicinity of the a-pawn.} Ke1 (11... Ke3 12. Rh3+) 12. Rh1+ Kf2 13.
Ra1 {when the a-pawn will be lost.} Ke2 14. Kb4 Ra8 15. Kb3) 10. Kd4 (10. Kxc3
a1=Q+) 10... Ra3 11. Rh1+ Kc2 12. Rh2+ Kb3 13. Rh3+ Kb4 {and Black wins.} * [/pgn]

2. Opening knowledge is only valuable if you understand the middlegames that arise when theory ends. 

In my last round, my opponent played an opening I was fairly familiar with. I blitzed out the first 12 moves which involved a very interesting pawn sac, and then my opponent deviated from the most common move. I'd looked at the variation years ago in what I thought was enough detail: I had looked over a few GM games (including a Carlsen game I could play out by heart). Yet, I was stumped. I spent 30 minutes over the board trying to understand the position, chose an idea that was absolutely incorrect, and had to struggle the entire game to hold a draw. The game showed me that I have to reassess the way I've been studying openings. In his book, Studying Chess Made Easy, GM Andrew Soltis devotes an entire chapter to “the right way to study an opening”. He describes the moment where one’s book knowledge ends as “leaving the station” and gives this advice to prepare for it:
“You want to know what your options are, expressed in terms of goals, maneuvers and plans... You need to grasp what David Bronstein called the ‘positional essence’ of the situations that arise.”
Soltis demonstrates "positional essence" with the following example:

White to move.

White's assets and plans
  • White has more space.
  • He controls a terrific outpost at d5, which he'd like to continue to occupy with his knight.
  • White may try to pressure the weak pawns at a5 or d6.
Black's assets and plans
  • Black can attack the b- and e-pawns.
  • He can target White's uncastled king.
  • He has the two bishops.
  • One of his bishops is "bad", and trading it for a knight may make sense.
Then, Soltis advises playing over master games from the position to see each side's ideas in practice. For example, Black usually brings his rooks into the game with ...Rb8 and ...f5 while White often reinforces his knight on d5 with Nce3.
Overall, it was a worthwhile tournament experience, which gave me an awareness of some of the gaps in my play and study habits. Continuing the never-ending quest for chess improvement, I'll go back to the drawing board, make adjustments, and try to implement them in future tournaments. My next one will be the Lina Grumette Memorial Day Classic.